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The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting 
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans, 
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an 
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest 
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner 
cities, and military bases. 

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for the nations 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institutes mission is to create 
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute 
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to 
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professional development. 

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opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based 
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state 
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South 
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Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg 

Published by 

National Endowment for the Arts 
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. 
Washington, DC 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 


Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. 1981. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004. 

Smalley, Eugene V. History of the Northern Pacific Railroad. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1883. 

Flynn, Sarah, Thomas King, and Adam O'Connor Rodriguez. "A Conversation with Marilynne Robinson, 
April 24, 2006 "/Willow Springs 58: Fall 2006. 


David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives 

Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education 

Writer: Deborah Galyan for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington DC 

Image Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Photo by Grant Faint, courtesy of Getty Images; 
book cover courtesy of Picador. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. Inside back cover: 
© Nancy Crampton. 


Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 15 

Handout One: Construction of the 

Sandpoint Railroad Bridge 16 

Handout Two: First-Person Narration in Housekeeping 17 

Handout Three: Family Dynamics in Housekeeping 18 

Teaching Resources 19 

NCTE Standards 20 


Having a sister or a 
friend is like sitting 
at night in a lighted 
house. Those outside 
can watch you if they 
want, but you need 
not see them." 

— from Housekeeping 


National Endowment for the Arts 


Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading 
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through 
great literature, as well as inspire students to become life-long readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Marilynne Robinson's classic novel, Housekeeping. Each lesson has four 
sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and 
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects 
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background 
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. 
All lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the 
fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the book, The Big Read CD presents 
firsthand accounts of why Housekeeping remains so compelling more than 
a quarter-century after its initial publication. Some of America's most 
celebrated writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to 
make Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope 
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • | 

ested Teaching 

Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD. Read 
the biography (pp. 5-6) and the interview 
excerpt (pp. 10-11) in the Housekeeping 
Reader's Guide. Collectively review the key 
points of Robinson's biography. Write about a 
childhood place of mystery and discovery. 

Homework: Read Chapter I (pp. 3-28).* 


Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Read and discuss Handout One. 
Discuss the role of women in the 1950s and 
how women are portrayed in the novel's 
first chapter. Write a short essay about a 
historical artifact or event that is interwoven 
with your family history. 

Homework: Read Chapters 2 and 3 
(pp. 29-59). 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Read and discuss Handout Two. 
Read aloud and discuss an excerpt of the 
ice-skating scene in Chapter 2. Write a 
description of the narrator. 

Homework: Read Chapter 4 (pp. 60-75). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Discuss the flood scene in Chapter 
4. Discuss and write about characters and the 
concept of family traits. 

Homework: Read Chapter 5 (pp. 76-94). 


Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Examine the extended metaphor 
(Fingerbone "relics") on p. 73. Ask the 
students to discuss what is being compared. 
Write a paragraph using figurative language to 
describe a complex emotion. 

Homework: Read Chapter 6 (pp. 95-108). 

* Page numbers refer to the Picador 2004 edition of Housekeeping. 


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Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Read aloud the scene depicting 
Sylvie on the bridge (pp. 80-84), and the 
section where Ruth and Lucille stop going 
to school and spend time at the bridge 
(pp. 95-97). Write about why and how the 
bridge functions as a symbol in the novel. 

Homework: Read Chapter 7 (pp. 109-142). 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Read and discuss Handout Three. 
Analyze and discuss the dynamics of Sylvie, 
Ruth, and Lucille's household. Write letters in 
Ruth and Lucille's voices. 

Homework: Read Chapter 8 (pp. 143-175). 

Day Eight 

FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Use the filmmaking technique of 
storyboarding to map the plot of the first 
eight chapters. 

Homework: Read Chapter 9 (pp. 176-191). 


Day Nine 

FOCUS: Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Discuss, analyze, and write about 
the central theme of housekeeping. 

Homework: Read Chapters 10 and II 
(pp. 192-219). 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great? 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a great 
novel. Write essays examining personal 
reactions to the novel. 

Homework: Select an essay topic and write a 
thesis statement. 

National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • 3 



Examining an author's life can inform and expand the reader's 
understanding of a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing 
a literary work through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson, 
explore the author's life to understand the novel more fully. 

A primordial landscape of mountains and cold, glacial waters made an 
indelible impression on Marilynne Robinson, who grew up in Sandpoint, 
Idaho, in the 1940s. Sandpoint 's large and majestic Lake Pend Oreille 
was a source of childhood fascination and family tragedy for Robinson, 
whose maternal uncle drowned in its waters before she was born. As an 
undergraduate she studied American literature and religion at Pembroke 
College (Brown University). On a dare from her roommate, Robinson 
took a writing workshop with the postmodernist writer John Hawkes, 
who encouraged her to have confidence in the ornate language, complex 
sentences, and extended metaphors that characterize her writing style. She 
has often said that Housekeeping (1980) began as a collection of metaphors. 
Eventually, the lake of her childhood became a powerful central image in 
the novel. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to The Big Read CD. Read the Reader's Guide biography of Robinson 
(pp. 5-6) and the interview excerpt (pp. 10-11). Students should take notes. 
Collectively review the key points of Robinson's biography. Ask students to share 
any questions or thoughts they will carry with them as they begin to read. 

Writing Exercise 

In the Reader's Guide interview, Robinson explains that many of the dramatic 
moments of her childhood involved the Idaho landscape, particularly the lake. 
"It's like the local spirit of the place," she explains, "and we spent a lot of time just 
hovering on the edges of it, looking at it and dipping into it." Ask the students to 
recall a place of discovery, experimentation, mystery, or wonder from their own 
childhoods, and to write a short essay describing this place and the thoughts and 
feelings it evokes. Some useful prompts might include: What drew you to this 
place? What about it intrigued, scared, or thrilled you? What did you learn there, 
and what remains a mystery? 

E3 Homework 

Read Chapter I (pp. 3-28). Students should list the characters they encounter, 
and return to class prepared to discuss the key events of Ruth's family history, 
described in Chapter I. 


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Lesson Two 


Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the center of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating intricate 
details of the time and place help readers understand the motivations of the 

Set in the 1950s, Housekeeping contains no references to specific years or 
significant national events. The vagueness of time and lack of news from 
the larger world contribute to the novel's powerful sense of place: the 
northern Idaho wilderness. The fictional town of Fingerbone has much in 
common with Robinson s childhood home of Sandpoint, Idaho, including 
a spectacular railway bridge suspended over a broad expanse of cold water. 
The building of railroads brought new economic opportunities and waves of 
job-seeking immigrants to remote settlements in the Northwest and carried 
away the enormous timber harvests of the northern forests. In the novel, the 
presence of hoboes and transients suggests that the 1930s Dust Bowl era is 
not long in the past, even as Lucille studies hairstyles and chats with older 
girls over Cokes at the drug store, quintessential teen rituals of the 1950s. 

Discussion Activities 

Read and discuss Handout One: Construction of the Sandpoint Railroad Bridge. 
As a class, discuss the role of women during the 1950s. Does the first chapter 
portray women differently than the stereotype? If so, how? 

Writing Exercise 

Ruth's and Lucille's history is interwoven with the history of American railroads: 
References to their grandfather's railroad job, the spectacular train disaster, and 
Aunt Sylvie's boxcar travels are embedded in the larger family story. Ask each 
student to write a short essay about a historic artifact or event that is entwined 
with his or her family story. How do the artifacts or events they have chosen 
connect their family histories to the larger events of history? 

R] Homework 

Read Chapters 2 and 3 (pp. 29-59). Answer these questions in writing: What is 
life like for Ruthie and Lucille after the arrival of Lily and Nona? Why do Lily and 
Nona decide to compose a letter to Sylvie? Why do the girls follow Sylvie on her 
morning walk? 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Lesson Three 


of View 

The narrator tells the story, with a specific perspective informed by his or 
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters, 
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point 
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person 
narrator participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced 
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story 
and uses the third-person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may 
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited, 
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the 
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told. 

Housekeeping is narrated in the first person by Ruth, who announces 
her identity, and, in a sense, her sole authority over the story, in the first 
sentence of the novel: My name is Ruth. She narrates the story of her 
unsteady childhood in an extended flashback. Throughout the narrative, 
she refers to herself by her childhood nickname, "Ruthie." The story is told 
from an adult point of view but offers no hint of Ruth s adult life until late 
in the book, when she reveals that she is a drifter who returns now and 
then to her childhood home but sees only what is visible of it from a boxcar. 

Discussion Activities 

Read and discuss Handout Two: First-person Narration in Housekeeping. Read 
aloud the ice-skating scene in Chapter 2. Begin on page 33: "For some reason the 
lake was a source of particular pleasure. . ." and end on page 35 with the paragraph 
that begins "If every house in Fingerbone were to fall before our eyes." 

Ei Writing Exercise 

Pretending that you have only the brief fragment of narrative discussed in the 
section above from which to work, write a description of the narrator. What can 
you know about her from the sights and sounds she describes? What holds her 
attention? What are her feelings about the lake, the town, and life in general? Each 
specific detail, word choice, or repetition constitutes a clue. (If you prefer, students 
can work in small groups.) 

EJ3 Homework 

Read Chapter 4 (pp. 60-75). Why does Sylvie's behavior during the flood make 
Ruthie and Lucille anxious? What is Lucille's complaint during the flood? What is 
Sylvie's response? 


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Lesson Four 



The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist. 
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often 
overcomes a flaw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new 
understanding by the work's end. A protagonist who acts with great 
honor or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist 
lacking these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or 
purposeful, the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The 
protagonist s journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold 
differing beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast 
with the protagonist s and highlight important features of the main 
character's personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes the 
protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success. 

The characters in Housekeeping share a house and a familial legacy. The 
dynamics of character interaction are especially rich when characters share 
family traits and sometimes act out intergenerational dramas. Although 
Ruthie is clearly the novel's protagonist, Lucille is often the instigator of 
action. She also serves as Ruthie's antagonist in later scenes, challenging her 
to reject Sylvie and "improve" herself. "Families are a sorrow, and that's the 
truth," one of the ladies of Fingerbone says (p. 186). For Ruthie, the truth 
and sorrow of her family is splintered across several generations. 

Discussion Activities 

Discuss the flood scene in Chapter 4. What do we learn about Ruthie, Lucille, 
and Sylvie? How does the family history shape the girls' expectations and 
suspicions about Sylvie? Read aloud and discuss the section on p. 74 beginning: 
"The restoration of the town was. . ." until the end of page 75. Discuss the 
concept of family patterns. 

Writing Exercise 

Ruthie says, "Then, too, for whatever reasons, our whole family was standoffish. 
This was the fairest description of our best qualities, and the kindest description 
of our worst faults" (p. 74). Have students write several paragraphs analyzing 
this passage. Given the family history, what are some reasons why they might be 
"standoffish"? How can a character flaw also be a strength? 

E] Homework 

Read Chapter 5 (pp. 76-94). What is Sylvie doing when they encounter her at 
the shore? How do the girls react to what they've seen? How does Sylvie's 
housekeeping transform the house? 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Lesson Five 



Writers use figurative language such as imagery, similes, and metaphors 
to help the reader visualize and experience events and emotions in a story. 
Imagery — a word or phrase that refers to sensory experience (sight, sound, 
smell, touch, or taste) — helps create a physical experience for the reader and 
adds immediacy to literary language. 

Some figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding 
the likeness in seemingly unrelated things. Simile is a comparison of two 
things that initially seem quite different but are shown to have significant 
resemblance. Similes employ connective words, usually "like," "as," "than," 
or a verb such as "resembles." A metaphor is a statement that one thing is 
something else that, in a literal sense, it is not. By asserting that a thing is 
something else, a metaphor creates a close association that underscores an 
important similarity between these two things. 

Robinson's use of figurative language in Housekeeping is extensive and 
elemental. The language Ruth uses to describe her experiences is layered 
with images, similes, and metaphors that reveal her unique way of 
perceiving the world. 

Discussion Activities 

Sometimes authors develop, or extend, a metaphor beyond one sentence. 
Examine the extended metaphor (Fingerbone "relics") on p. 73. Ask the students 
to discuss what is being compared. What is the source of the imagery Ruth uses? 
Why would she choose this metaphor to describe Fingerbone after the flood? 
What does Ruth mean by the statement, "Every spirit passing through the world 
fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not 
to buy." How does it connect to Ruth's thoughts about the flood? 

Writing Exercise 

Figurative language can illuminate a complex idea or emotion, as when Ruth 
describes what it feels like to eat lunch alone at school: "It seemed as if I were 
trying to eat a peanut-butter sandwich while hanging by the neck" (p. 136). Ask 
students to remember a situation in which they experienced strong or mixed 
feelings that seemed difficult to put into words. Write a paragraph about that 
situation using figurative language to describe their feelings. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapter 6 (pp. 95-108). What do the woods represent to Ruthie and 
Lucille? How do their feelings differ? 


National Endowment for the Arts 


Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance 
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on 
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently, 
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract 
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or 
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in 
the book's title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound 
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is 
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and re-interpreting the 
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can 
reveal new interpretations of the novel. 

In Housekeeping, the lake and woods, the railroad bridge, and the house are 
charged with symbolic meaning for Ruth, who associates them consciously 
and subconsciously with the defining events of her past. She haunts these 
places in search of self-knowledge, declaring that "everything must finally 
be made comprehensible" (p. 92). 

Discussion Activities 

In the novel, Ruthie, Lucille, and Sylvie spend many hours at the lake. A place of 
mystery, "the lightless, airless waters" suggest the constant presence of death 
in life. Ruth's grandfather and mother plunge into it and die, yet, paradoxically, 
the lake elicits memories that keep the dead alive. Working with the students, 
analyze several descriptions of the lake (including pp. 9, 112, and 192-194). 
Discuss how and why the lake functions as a symbol in the novel. 

Writing Exercise 

Read aloud the scene depicting Sylvie on the bridge (pp. 80-84) and the section 
where Ruthie and Lucille stop going to school and spend time at the bridge (pp. 
95-97). Have students analyze and write a few paragraphs about why and how 
the bridge functions as a symbol in the novel. Helpful prompts might include: 
Why are Ruthie and Lucille alarmed by Sylvie's presence on the bridge? What 
happened on the bridge earlier in the novel? What does Sylvie mean when she 
says, "I've always wondered what it would be like"? Do the bridge and lake, as 
symbols, relate to each other? Have volunteers share their finished pieces with 
the class. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapter 7 (pp. 109-142). Make a list of key events in the chapter, and note 
in detail Lucille's changes in attitude and behavior. 

National Endowment for the Arts 





Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. 
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo 
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in each 
character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The tension 
between a character's strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing 
about what might happen next and the protagonists eventual success or 

In the earliest chapters of Housekeeping, Ruthie is always in the company of 
her younger sister, Lucille. The sisters are nearly inseparable; they exist as a 
single entity, Helen's orphaned girls, referred to by Lily and Nona as "poor 
things" (p. 32). But as they grow, the author reveals differences in their 
developing characters. Ruthie is accepting and reflective about the chaotic 
life that unfolds after her grandmothers death. Lucille is more critical and 
demanding. "It'll be all right," Ruthie says to her, when Aunt Sylvie appears 
to be running away after only one night in Fingerbone. "I know it'll be 
all right, but it makes me mad," Lucille replies (pp. 55-56). In an ironic 
reversal, Lucille and Ruthie, who as children had been "almost as a single 
consciousness" (p. 98), suffer irreconcilable differences as teenagers. Lucille 
challenges Ruthie's placid acceptance of Sylvie's ways and eventually moves 
out, destabilizing Ruthie's life once again. 

Discussion Activities 

Read and discuss Handout Three: Family Dynamics in Housekeeping. Analyze and 
discuss the dynamics of Sylvie, Ruthie, and Lucille's household. What does each 
character want from the others? Do they change to accommodate each other? 
If so, how? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask half the students to write a letter in Lucille's voice to Ruth, explaining why 
Lucille left home. Ask the other half to write a letter in Ruth's voice to Lucille, 
explaining why she should return home. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapter 8 (pp. 143-175). What is the reason for the visit to the abandoned 
house in the valley? What sensations, thoughts, and feelings does Ruthie 
experience there? Is the abandoned house similar to the Foster house? 

10 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


The Plot 

The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense, 
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either 
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to 
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple 
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the 
peak of the story's conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or 
denouement, in which the aftereffects of that climactic action are presented. 

A number of events (the train disaster, the disappearances of Molly, 
Helen, and Sylvie) occur before Ruthie s birth, yet they echo profoundly 
throughout the novel. The reader is always aware of the influence of 
the past on the unfolding plot. Just as the novel contains stories within 
stories, it also contains journeys within journeys, as Ruth visits and revisits 
symbolic places on her quest for meaning and self discovery. 

Discussion and Writing Activities 

Use the filmmaking technique of storyboarding to map the plot of the first eight 
chapters. Have the students identify major plot elements. Use colored markers 
and a large sheet of paper from an easel pad for each plot turn. Take turns 
drawing scenes (stick figures are fine) and writing short summary statements 
for each one. Examples: Ruth recounts her grandfather's death; Ruth recounts her 
grandmother's life as a widow; Helen commits suicide; Ruthie and Lucille grow up with 
their grandmother; Grandmother dies; Lily and Nona take up housekeeping. Ask the 
students to note stories within stories and subplots in boxes along the bottom of 
each page. Number each element. Display them in order around the room. 

EJ Homework 

Read Chapter 9 (pp. 176-191). Why do the ladies of Fingerbone come to the 
house? How does Sylvie characterize her relationship with Ruthie when she 
speaks to the ladies? How does Sylvie's behavior change at the end of the 

National Endowment for the Arts 


Lesson Nine 


Themes of 
the Novel 

Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple 
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound 
questions will arise in the readers mind about human life, social pressures, 
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus 
censorship, the relationship between one's personal moral code and larger 
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel 
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts 
or from new points of view. 

Discussion and Writing Activities 

Robinson announces the central theme of the book in the title: Housekeeping. 
The theme is known from the outset, but her treatment of it quickly transcends 
all ordinary associations with the concept. The novel might be described as a 
meditation on the meaning of housekeeping, from its most ordinary aspects to 
its farthest metaphorical potential: How does one make a home in the world? 
Explore this theme through the following questions and exercises: 

1. What does housekeeping mean to Grandmother Sylvia? What advice does she 
offer the girls (Example: "Sell the orchards," p. 27)? How do Lily and Nona 
view their housekeeping responsibilities? 

2. Review the descriptions of Sylvie's housekeeping (including pp. 84-85, 
99-103, and 180-181). Have students create a collective list of her 
housekeeping habits. 

3. Discuss: How do Sylvie's habits differ from traditional ideas of housekeeping? 
What sort of meals does she prefer (p. 87)? How does she disregard the 
traditional boundaries between indoors and outdoors? Why? What insight can 
the reader gain about Sylvie's housekeeping from the stories she tells? How do 
the rituals of housekeeping relate to the keeping and nurturing of family and 
family bonds? How does the author feel about the human project of "keeping 
house" in a world where all living things perish eventually? 

4. Work with students to create a list of other themes in the novel (for example, 
abandonment, loneliness, and transience). Have students choose one theme 
and write a short essay describing how one or more characters express 

this theme in words and actions. Students should support their ideas with 
examples from the text. 

E2 Homework 

Read Chapters 10 and II (pp. 192-219). Why can Ruth no longer imagine going 
into the house (p. 203)? What insights does Ruth have in the orchard? Why 
do Ruth and Sylvie set the house on fire? What is Ruth's answer to her own 
question: "When did I become so unlike other people?" (p. 214). 

12 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


What Makes 
a Book Great? 

Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the 
larger context of the human struggle. The writer's voice, style, and use of 
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities 
to learn, imagine, and reflect, a great novel is a work of art that affects 
many generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and 
breaks new ground. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these 
on the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, in 
groups, other books that include some of these characteristics. Do any of these 
books remind them of Housekeeping? Is this a great novel? 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does 
Marilynne Robinson create in Housekeeping 7 . 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to write a short essay exploring their personal reactions to 
Housekeeping. Students should go beyond expressing like or dislike. Ask them to 
make a list of emotions they felt while reading the novel, and to examine why. 
Which characters and scenes did they relate to, and which remained strange or 
difficult to comprehend? Was the resolution of the novel satisfying? Comforting? 
Disturbing? Why? 

EJJ Homework 

Select an essay topic, or have students choose from the list of Essay Topics 
provided in this guide. Ask students to come to the next class with a draft of 
their thesis for the essay. 

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The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the Discussion Questions in the Readers Guide. Advanced students can come up with 
their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are 
provided here. 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or 
thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting 
reasons should be backed by references to the text. 

1. If you were in Ruthie and Lucille's situation, 
would you choose to live with Miss Royce, or 
cross the bridge with Sylvie? Explain in detail 
why you would choose one lifestyle and reject 
the other. What is Lucille seeking by choosing 
an orderly, conventional life? What are the 
advantages and disadvantages of her choice? 
What has Ruth gained and what has she lost 
in choosing a transient life? Support your 
opinions with passages from the text. 

2. Analyze the symbolic role of the house in 
the novel. Describe what it represents to 
various characters in the novel (Edmund 
Foster, Sylvia Foster, Ruthie, Lucille, Sylvie, 
and the women of the town). On pages 
152-159, Ruth describes her thoughts as she 
explores the abandoned homestead on the 
island. What does Ruth mean when she says, 
"the appearance of relative solidity in my 
grandmother's house was deceptive"? Why 
does she say "it is better to have nothing"? 
Why do Sylvie and Ruth try to burn down the 

In the final chapter of the novel, Ruthie and 
Sylvie cross the bridge to escape Fingerbone. 
"I believe it was the crossing of the bridge 
that changed me finally," Ruth says (p. 215). 
How and why is this a symbolic crossing? For 
Ruth, what is the purpose of the crossing, and 
what is being crossed? What subject does she 
dwell on while crossing the bridge? What, in a 
symbolic sense, is she leaving behind, escaping, 
or liberating herself from? 

Ruth's imagination is extravagant, and she is 
constantly looking for meaningful patterns 
in the world. Carefully select three or four 
revealing passages that describe Ruth's inner 
thoughts. What does each reveal about her 
concerns, hopes, and fears? What does her 
language tell you about her background? How 
do certain word choices reveal the way she 
sees the world? Create a written portrait 
of Ruth, using the passages as evidence to 
support your ideas. 

14 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, student assembly, or 

I. Read and discuss the following description 
of Fingerbone: 

The people of Fingerbone and its environs 
were very much given to murder. And 
it seemed that for every pitiable crime 
there was an appalling accident. What with 
the lake and the railroads, and what with 
blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest 
fires and the general availability of shotguns 
and bear traps and homemade liquor and 
dynamite, what with the prevalence of 
loneliness and religion and the rages and 
ecstasies they induce, and the closeness 
of families, violence was inevitable, 
(pp. 176-177) 

Marilynne Robinson has acknowledged that her 
hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho, was a model 
for Fingerbone. Using PowerPoint, work as 
a team to produce a historical slideshow of 
Sandpoint during the 1940s and 1950s. Have 
students research topics such as logging and 
mining, hunting, weather (Was there a real 
flood? Fires? A snowstorm that caused houses 
to collapse?), railroads and railroad bridges 
(Was there a railroad bridge? A train accident? 
Does the bridge still exist?), Lake Pend Oreille; 
cultural/social life in town, etc. The goal might 
be for each student to create two or three 
slides for his or her topic. Students should 
include photographs, music, and spoken word 
(with appropriate permissions). The Bonner 
County Historical Society, Sandpoint web site, 
and Sandpoint Magazine archives are possible 
resources. The finished slideshow could be 
presented at Big Read discussions or events 
around the community or displayed in the 
public library or another community site. 

Plan an evening of readings from Housekeeping. 
A local coffee shop that hosts open mike 
events might make a nice venue. Help 
interested students select sections of the 
novel to prepare as dramatic readings or 
monologues. Arrange for a drama coach 
or actors from a local theatre company to 
help students prepare their selections. (A 
local theatre company might be interested in 
partnering with your students and participating 
in this event, giving students a chance to work 
with seasoned actors.) Plan ahead and publicize 
your event. 

Ask a historian, folklore expert, or storyteller 
to give a presentation on tramps, hoboes, and 
boxcar drifters associated with the railroads 
and the Dust Bowl era. Or take the class to 
the local library or historical society to see 
photographs and artifacts related to railroad 
folklore. Arrange with staff ahead of time to 
have a variety of materials available. 

After students have read the novel, arrange 
for the class to watch the 1987 film version 
of Housekeeping, written and directed by Bill 
Forsyth. Before watching the movie, have the 
class read the brief essay on the film in the 
Reader's Guide (p. 9). Afterward, discuss the 
film in relation to the novel. What aspects 
of the novel did the film illuminate? How 
did the characters compare to those in the 
novel? Does the film succeed in presenting 
the essence of the story of Housekeeping? 
If so, how? 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Construction of the Sandpoint Railroad Bridge 

Sylvie and I walked the whole black night across 
the railroad bridge at Fingerbone — a very long 
bridge, as you know if you have seen it. 

— from Housekeeping, p. 216 

Author Marilynne Robinson grew up in Idaho 
watching trains traverse the Sandpoint railroad 
bridge, a long, dramatic span of track suspended 
over the deep waters of Lake Pend Oreille. Forty 
trains each day now pass through Sandpoint, but 
imagine how vast and impenetrable the Idaho 
wilderness must have seemed when surveyors for 
the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in the 1850s. 
Before the railroad arrived, travelers to the area 
relied on Indian trails, and the town of Sandpoint 
didn't exist. The first railroad bridge was built in 

1882, as part of a three-hundred-mile segment of 
track constructed west from Heron, Montana to 
Wallula, Washington. The original bridge, updated 
in 1905, was constructed with wooden pilings and 
ties cut from virgin timber harvested from the 
surrounding forests. 

In Eugene Virgil Smalley's extraordinary History 
of the Northern Pacific Railroad, published in 

1883, the building of the bridge itself is reported 
as somewhat less arduous than the construction 
of track leading up to the shores of Lake Pend 

As the railroad approaches Lake Pend Oreille 
from the west, the country becomes broken 
with ridges and deep ravines, and much trestle 
and piling is required. Within three miles of 
the lake there are three trestles — one 2,000 
feet long, one 1,400 feet, and one 1,300 feet. 

The work was performed by several thousand 
men, Smalley noted, "in spite of heavy snow-falls." 
There were no settlements along the construction 
path east of Spokane. All supplies were hauled in 
on horse-drawn wagons. The coming of spring 
put an end to the miseries of snow, but it brought 
high water and terrible mud as work began on the 
bridge. Still, the workers endured. The finished 
bridge had a length of 8,400 feet (1.6 miles). 
Smalley wrote that "six hundred feet of this 
structure runs across such deep water that piles 
from 90 to 100 feet in length are required." 

Within a few years, Sandpoint became a rowdy, 
booming railroad town. In 1908, another long 
bridge was built over the lake to carry wagons 
and, eventually, cars. But the railroad bridge is 
Robinson's chosen image in the novel, perhaps 
because it recalls a time when a train pulling into 
town held any number of interesting possibilities in 
a lonely place, including escape. 

16 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


First- Person Narration in Housekeeping 

The first-person narrator of Housekeeping announces 
her identity in the first sentence of the novel: "My 
name is Ruth." Beginning this way suggests that 
identity is the primal force of the story. Everything 
we experience in the novel will be filtered through 
Ruths senses, her thoughts and language. 

Marilynne Robinson could have chosen a third- 
person narrator to tell the story: Her name is Ruth. 
She grew up with her younger sister, Lucille, under the 
care of her grandmother. . . . But Housekeeping is, at 
its core, a novel of self-discovery. Beneath the novel's 
beautiful, grave sentences, mysterious characters, 
and wild landscapes, is Ruth's lone search for the 
answer to a question she defines for herself: 

When did I become so unlike other people? 
(p. 214). 

First-person narration allows the story to belong 
entirely to Ruth. She alone has direct access to her 
inner experience. Ruth sees, hears, and thinks like 
a poet as she moves through the world, and first- 
person narration allows us to feel enveloped by her 
poetic consciousness, to experience her extraordinary 
inner voice directly: 

And there is no living creature, though 
the whims of eons had put its eyes on 
boggling stalks and clamped it in a carapace, 
diminished it to a pinpoint and given it a taste 
for mud and stuck it down a well or hid it 
under a stone, but that creature will live on if 
it can (p. 178). 

"I hear a voice that I would say is not my voice," 
Robinson explains. "When I read Housekeeping 
out loud, I hear it over again in my mind. I'm very 
interested in the musicality of language." 

In a variation on a traditional first-person voice, 
Ruth is able to narrate not only the events of her 
own lifetime, but some that occur before she was 
born. Describing the aftermath of the deadly train 
derailment, she is uncannily aware of visual details, 
knowing that "shivers flew when a swimmer 
surfaced, and the membrane of ice that formed 
where the ice was torn looked new, glassy, and 
black" (p. 8). 

This narrative fluidity gives Ruth an expanded 
authority over matters of family history and raises 
interesting questions about memory and knowledge. 

Commenting on this unusual narrative stance in 
an interview published in Willow Springs, Robinson 
says, "a lot of what I knew and a lot of what seemed 
important in my early life were descriptions of 
things I had not seen that had a profound reality 
in my imagination, because they were told among 
people whose importance to me is mythic, in the 
way that grandparents and aunts and uncles are to 
children. So I think there's a huge psychological 
latitude with the first-person because we have a 
much greater store of experience than what we 
actually witness." 

Ruth's voice, more than any other aspect of the 
novel, creates its distinctive tone. First-person 
narration allows the reader to accompany her 
unhindered into a private world. 

National Endowment lor the Arts 



Family Dynamics in Housekeeping 

Families in which nothing is ever discussed 
usually have a lot not to discuss. 

— Mason Cooley 

Families edit their histories. They tell some stories, 
but not others. And within stories they select 
certain details to include and others to avoid. 
In Housekeeping, the Foster family becomes a 
matriarchy by spectacular accident, but we soon 
learn that a certain ambivalence toward men 
is more than accidental. As readers, we have to 
wonder about Edmund and Sylvia's marriage when 
she views his death as an extension of his habit of 
disappearing. We wonder still more when Ruth 
describes how her grandfather once helped her 
grandmother over a puddle "with a wordless and 
impersonal courtesy that she did not resent because 
she had never really wished to feel married to 
anyone." After Edmund, no man occupies a place 
in the Foster family for long. 

The serene and ordered life that follows for 
widowed Sylvia and her three daughters is missing 
something. Family silence surrounds the difficult 
subjects of abandonment and loss. Ruth describes 
an unspoken anxiety in the Foster girls, telling 
us that Molly, Helen, and Sylvie "hovered" and 
watched their mother; they "pressed her and 
touched her as if she had just returned after an 
absence." Yet these anxieties, along with grief for 
their father, are never voiced. "The disaster," Ruth 
says, "had fallen out of sight, like the train itself." 

Sylvia's silence on the "big subjects" may be what 
hastens the departures of her grown daughters, 
which seem less like rites of passage and more like 
escapes. Or, could it be that the girls have inherited 
their father's tendency to disappear? Molly vanishes 

into "the Orient," Helen and Sylvie into marriages 
that don't last. (If Edmund is a ghost in the novel, 
then the estranged husbands of Helen and Sylvie 
are mere vapors.) "Our grandmother never spoke 
of any of her daughters," Ruth observes, "and 
when they were mentioned to her, she winced with 

There is a family connection between Edmund's 
death and Helen's when she drives off a cliff 
into the same lake that took his life. But no one 
ever blurts out this astonishing association. It 
remains submerged, like the train, and Helen's 
borrowed car. 

In Sylvie, the drifter, we see the family silence 
reveal itself in a new generation. Lucille, the 
youngest and angriest of her nieces, questions her 
insistently for family details, but her answers are 
vague, even impersonal. When Lucille asks why 
Sylvie never had children, she scolds: "You must 
know, Lucille . . . that some questions aren't polite. 
I'm sure that my mother must have told you that." 

Could it be that Ruth's story is her response to 
family silence? In one sense, the novel is Ruth's 
piecing together the scattered scraps of memory 
and history into a real story at last, filling in the 
blanks with water and wind, the elements of her 
ancestral Fingerbone. As the Foster family may 
have known when they chose silence, there is 
sorrow in the telling. However, as Ruth observes, 
"What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit 
up finally?" 

18 • THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


Pinsker, Sanford. Conversations with Contemporary American 
Writers. Atlanta, GA: Editions Rodopi, 1985. 

Conover, Ted. Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with 
America's Hoboes. New York: Vintage Books, 2001. 

Works by Marilynne Robinson 


Housekeeping (1980) 

Gilead (2004) 
Home (2008) 


Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear 
Pollution (1989) 

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998) 

Books that include essays by Marilynne Robinson 

Abernethy, Bob, and William Bole. The Life of Meaning: 
Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World. New 
York: Seven Stories Press, 2007. 

Thornton, John R, and Susan B. Varenne, eds. John Calvin: 
Steward of God's Covenant: Selected Writings. Preface by 
Marilynne Robinson. New York: Vintage, 2006. 

Web sites 
Bonner County Historical Society. This site contains 
articles and stories about Bonner County, Idaho, 
including the town of Sandpoint. I / 


Sandpoint Magazine. "100 Years of Memories." The site 

contains oral interviews with Sandpoint, Idaho, residents 

on topics of local history from 1901 to the present day. 


Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest. 

Information and curriculum packets on Pacific Northwest 

history, culture, and literature, including an essay, "My 

Western Roots," by Marilynne Robinson, are included on 

this Web site. 
A collection of selected images by Darius Kinsey, the 
most important photographer of logging in the Pacific 
Northwest. The University of Washington Libraries' 
collection illustrates logging and lumbering from the turn 
of the century until the 1940s. 
Willow Springs. Includes an interview with Marilynne 
Robinson conducted by Sarah Flynn, Thomas King, 
and Adam O'Connor Rodriguez on April 24, 2006. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards" 

1. Students read a wide range of print and 
non-print texts to build an understanding of 
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of 
the United States and the world; to acquire 
new information; to respond to the needs 
and demands of society and the workplace; 
and for personal fulfillment. Among these 
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and 
contemporary works. 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies 
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and 
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior 
experience, their interactions with other 
readers and writers, their knowledge of 
word meaning and of other texts, their 
word identification strategies, and their 
understanding of textual features (e.g., 
sound-letter correspondence, sentence 
structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 

6. Students apply knowledge of language 
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling 
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

7. Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit 
their purpose and audience. 

8. Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 

9. Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

10. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable, 
reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literary communities. 

12. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and 
develop your application of the curriculum. 

20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


Tor even things lost 
in a house abide, like 
forgotten sorrows and 
incipient dreams." 

from Housekeeping 

The Big Read is an initiative of the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading 
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents 
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of 
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation 
with Arts Midwest. 

A great nation deserves great art.